Playing for your country is considered one of the highest honours that a footballer can achieve during their career. Entertaining thousands and winning trophies for a club side is nice but there is something extra special in carrying the hopes and dreams of an entire population.
For many footballers, the dream of representing their country began at a very early age. Whether it’s pretending to score the winning goal in the back garden or sleeping in football pyjamas, kids tend to make and show their allegiances early on. It’s not always so simple, however.
More so than ever, people move around the globe and children are born in different nations to their parents and grandparents. Nationality is a complex issue and identity even more so. There are countless examples of players having to decide which country they should play for. Each of those players has made a deeply personal decision but such a decision is also an administrative process.
FIFA and the other governing bodies in football have strict rules that set down the conditions about when a player can represent more than one international team. In this article, we take an in depth look into the applicable rules, discuss why players would want to change their international allegiance and pick out 10 high profile examples of players who have represented two or more national teams.
What Are the Rules?
As the overarching governing body of world football, it’s FIFA who are in charge of the rules regarding international representation. Collectively known as the eligibility rules, the criteria were comprehensively updated in 2021. The effect of these updates was, generally, to make it possible for players to switch their allegiance who otherwise wouldn’t be able to. This does not mean that it is easy for footballers to play for more than one country, however. Let’s have a look at the specific rules and clauses that are applicable and how things have changed over time.
The Early Days
In the earliest days of Association Football and of FIFA things were relatively simple. The principle was that eligibility for international football would follow a player’s legal nationality. The complicating factor is that legal nationality can be changeable. Any footballer who emigrated to a different country to that of their birth and stayed long enough to receive citizenship and/or have their legal nationality change would be able to play for their adopted country. This was the case with some very high profile players, such as legendry real Madrid duo, Alfred Di Stéfano (who represented both Argentina and Spain) and Ferenc Puskás (who represented both Hungary and Spain).
While most people were happy enough with this system, there were some glaring problems that needed to be sorted. First, international football should be a different beast to domestic football. We all know that loyalty is a rare thing in club football, especially these days, with players and clubs always looking out for themselves. International football is a very different beast, so it cannot be right that players change their allegiances time and time again in order to best serve themselves.
Second, recognised FIFA associations do not always tally with nation states as recognised by the United Nations. Take the United Kingdom as an example. It is one country but with four different football associations. Then there are nation states with different ethnic groups or areas which complicates things in terms of who players wish to represent. Kosovo is a good example of this. For years, footballers who would want to play for Kosovo were unable to as the nation did not have an officially recognised international team.
2004 – Major Changes
FIFA attempted to address the problems with their eligibility criteria with the introduction of a new set of rules in January, 2004. These new rules were seen as a radical overhaul of the system but were themselves altered again just a few months later. The first draft of rules aimed to offer footballers some leeway as youngsters, whilst ensuring that they would have to stick to their guns in senior football. Specifically, FIFA allowed footballers to represent one country at youth team level and then another as a senior international. The only caveat was that players had to signal their intention to switch their allegiance before their 21st birthday.
Footballers who had the option to represent multiple nations broadly welcomed the new rules. It was only a matter of months before players began playing for one international team despite playing their youth team football for another nation. However, there was an unintended consequence of the new rules which forced a change. Some ambitious football associations who didn’t have the amount of talent that they wanted began to exploit the rules by naturalising players from other nations to boost their numbers. Perhaps the most infamous example of this is Qatar.
Qatar is a rich country in terms of money but it is not rich in terms of football history or population size. This was a problem for the country’s rulers who craved the legitimacy that football provides when competing at the top level of international football – and even hosting the World Cup (something that was pretty much unimaginable in 2004). Thus, Qatari scouts travelled throughout South America and Africa to find talented young players and make generous offers to their families to ensure they took up the offer of naturalisation. These offers were made to young footballers even if they had no links to Qatar.
FIFA tried to take action against this practice (which was, to be fair, also implemented by other countries than Qatar) by adding a requirement for players to have what they called “a clear connection” to their proposed new national team. Specifically, players had to have at least one parent or grandparent who was born in the country they wished to play for, or they themselves needed to be resident in that country for a minimum of two years (later extended to five years).
The amendments were necessary but still did not have the effect that FIFA wanted. In 2007, then FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, was quoted talking about “invaders from Brazil towards Europe, Asia and Africa” and suggested that the majority of teams playing in the World Cup would be made up of naturalised Brazilians, a nation with an abundance of football talent among its huge population.
2020 – Further Changes Announced
Despite the various loopholes and rules that could be bent post 2004, there was one hard and fast rule that international teams and players could not get around. Once a footballer played a competitive international match for one national team that was the only country that they could represent for the rest of their professional careers.
This rule did not apply to friendly matches. It was not uncommon for a player to represent one international team in a friendly and then go on to commit to another. We saw it with Diego Costa, who played for Brazil twice before switching allegiance to Spain. More recently, we saw it with Declan Rice, who represented the Republic of Ireland three times, but made himself unavailable for selection when Ireland manager, Mick McCarthy, tried to call him up for a competitive fixture. After much reported agonising, Rice ultimately chose to play for England.
Rice wouldn’t have had to keep Ireland waiting had FIFA’s new rule changes come in just a couple of years earlier. As of 2021, players are able to switch their allegiance even if they’ve played a maximum of three competitive matches for a different nation, providing they are under the age of 21 and qualify to play for the new nation under FIFA eligibility rules. However, this rule does not apply if the player represented their first national team at the World Cup or European Championship, Copa America, or other such championship.
The new rules also changed things for players who become naturalised in another country. Footballers are now able to play for their adopted country even if they have represented another nation at youth level, providing they have lived in their new home country for at least five years or are otherwise eligible (through ancestry for example). The number of years required is reduced to three for players who moved to a new country before the age of 10. As you can see, things are rather complex with different scenarios catered for in slightly different ways.
Why Do Players Switch Allegiance?
Identity is an incredibly complex issue for anybody, let alone high-class footballers who are trying to decide who to play for. Players have to consider a whole host of different factors from what will best for their careers to how to honour their parents and grandparents. Let’s look at some of the most common and important reasons why players make this huge decision.
As noted earlier, FIFA associations don’t exactly tally with nation states as defined by the United Nations. Although FIFA is generally happy to stick to its own rules it does recognise that 25 of its member organisations share a common nationality with at least one other.
The most obvious example of this is a footballer with British nationality. Providing the circumstances allow, British nationals are able to represent 11 different national teams – Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, England, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Turks and Caicos Islands, and Wales.
If players have a familial link with the new common nation that they wish to represent they are able to do so with no fuss. Additionally, FIFA allows for players to make a switch without such links providing they have been resident in their new nation for a minimum of five years.
Things are – predictably – complicated even further in Britain. In 1993 an agreement by the Football Association, Scottish Football Association, Football Association of Wales and Irish Football Association stated: “Where [a] player, both natural parents, and both natural grandparents are born outside the UK, but the player is the holder of a current British passport, he may play for the country of his choice.” This meant a naturalised British citizen could choose to play for Wales, for example, wherever in the UK they live. In practice, the four associations were not comfortable with this arrangement though and, in 2009, a residency clause was added which required players to live in the country they wanted to represent for at least two years.
The Chance of Glory
Cliché it may well be but when footballers say that a career in the professional game is a short one they aren’t wrong. Every young footballer signing their first professional contract dreams that one day they’ll be part of a team that wins major honours and the best way of doing that is playing for the best team possible.
This is true of international football just as much as domestic football. And so players who are good enough, who also have a choice of teams to represent, will often pick the one that gives them the best chance of glory.
The French national team is a good example of this. A high proportion of Les Bleus players have parents or grandparents who came to France as immigrants. This gives their highly talented offspring a choice of two or more national teams to represent. As much as choosing a team is a deeply personal matter, picking a nation who have won the World Cup twice in recent times is clearly a positive to players’ chances of major international success.
Glory Through Simply Playing International Football
Whilst the best players may choose to play for a nation they feel less strongly about as it gives them more chance of winning things, this also works in the opposite way in a sense. There are many footballers who may have been born in England, for example, and feel very English, but who have ended up playing for another country. If it becomes apparent that they won’t quite make the grade to represent the Three Lions, or they simply keep be overlooked as each squad is announced, a rival FA may make an approach.
Perhaps the player’s parents were born in Nigeria, or Jamaica (or anywhere else) and so the player is approached by the authorities from one of these nations. Accepting that their chances of playing for England have passed, or at best are very remote, they may choose to play for the nation of their parents (or grandparents), simply for the chance to play international football at all, and possibly get to a World Cup or other major tournament.
Football at the top level is incredibly competitive. This is true of international football as much as it is of domestic football. So, just as scouts, coaches and agents work very hard to convince promising young players to join their club, the same pressure is applied to young players who have yet to play a competitive international match. This sort of pressure is particularly evident in Britain. England has long been the dominant footballing force in the British Isles and so the best young talent from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland is often targeted by the FA.
Gareth Bale is a good example of this. It was always going to be a tough sell for the English FA because Bale played for Wales at various levels of youth football as well as competing in national schools’ football. However, he was repeatedly asked whether he would play for England, especially when he moved to Southampton as a 16-year-old. This is because he qualified to play for England via his grandmother. Still, Bale held firm under the pressure to play for England and went on to captain Wales, becoming arguably the country’s greatest ever player.
Several recent World Cup winners had the option to represent a nation other than the one they tasted glory with. At the same time, many other players have taken a different decision, choosing instead to honour the country of their parents and/or grandparents. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is one of the most well-known examples of this. He was born and raised in France and was certainly good enough to have earned many caps for his country of birth. He also had a Spanish passport and was invited to play for Italy Under 19s as well, after the Italian FA noticed his qualities. However, the former Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona striker decided to play for Gabon instead.
Aubameyang wanted to represent the African nation largely because his father, who was born and raised in Gabon, had done so himself and even captained his nation. Moreover, Aubameyang Jr had two brothers, Willy and Catilina, who also played international football for Gabon. Despite potentially missing out on silverware, Aubameyang is happy to go down as the best player ever to represent Gabon.
10 High Profile Players Who Played for More Than One Country
We’ve looked at the rules governing player eligibility and discussed why a player might want to choose one national team over another so now it’s time to pick out 10 of the most famous examples of players who played international football for more than one team.
Alfredo Di Stéfano – Argentina, Colombia & Spain
Alfredo Di Stêfano is one of the most important figures in the history of Spanish football. He was a key player in Real Madrid’s domination of the 1950s and 60s, winning eight Liga titles. He played 31 times for the Spanish national team. Di Stéfano didn’t arrive in Spain until the age of 27 though and by that time he had already played international football for both Argentina and Colombia.
As a supremely talented goalscorer, it was no surprise that Di Stéfano was called up to the Argentina national team when just 21. He was successful with his country of birth, winning the South American Championship in 1947. His performances at that tournament would be his final ones for Argentina though as off-field problems meant Argentina did not play competitively for six years and by the time Di Stéfano had a national team to play, for he had already played for Colombia. Although the matches he played for Colombia were not officially recognised by FIFA, the governing body banned Di Stéfano from playing for Argentina again.
FIFA were more accommodating in 1957 when Di Stéfano, by then a naturalised Spanish citizen, requested to play for Spain. FIFA allowed the move largely because of the ongoing issues with Argentinian football. Di Stefano had a typically understated debut in which he scored a hat-trick against the Netherlands, and he continued to play for Spain until injury ruled him out of the 1962 World Cup.
Ferenc Puskás – Hungary & Spain
It’s fair to say that Real Madrid have long been used to getting their way in Spanish football. They played a big role in getting Alfredo Di Stéfano to play for Spain and the same was true of their other big attacking star of the time, Ferenc Puskás. Puskás was a huge star with Hungary, playing 85 times for his national team before he played a single match for Real Madrid. Were it not for the violence in Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Puskás would have kept on playing for his home nation but he decided not to return to the communist country after leaving for a world tour with Budapest Honvéd. And, after having his choice of other major European clubs, he signed for Real Madrid.
Despite being 31 and not playing for two years having been banned for that length of time due to his refusal to return to Hungary, Puskás hit the ground running with Real Madrid and formed a lethal partnership with Di Stéfano. He was so brilliant in the Spanish capital that he was called up to represent Spain after becoming a naturalised citizen and he replaced the injured Di Stéfano in the 1962 World Cup.
Declan Rice – Ireland & England
You don’t have to be Poirot to work out that a man with the first name Declan has some Irish heritage. It was no surprise then that Declan Rice, whose paternal grandparents are from County Cork, represented Ireland at various youth team levels. Rice made the step up to the full Ireland squad shortly after breaking into the first team at West Ham. He impressed so much in three friendly appearances that Mick McCartney told Rice he would build the Ireland team around him.
However, Rice was growing in confidence in terms of where his career was going and he ultimately decided to switch his allegiance from Ireland to England. It was not an easy decision for the youngster, who did feel Irish to a certain extent. Though it was not taken lightly by Rice, who mulled it over for an extended period, many Irish fans have not forgiven the £105m man.
Diego Costa – Brazil & Spain
Strangely for a Brazilian, Diego Costa was named after Argentinian great, Diego Maradona. Despite that early link to football, Costa never believed he would make it as a professional footballer so he was delighted when Brazil manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari, called him up to the first team squad for friendlies against Italy and Russia in 2013.
That delight did not last long though as Costa made an official request to FIFA to change his nationality and represent Spain. Costa had been granted Spanish nationality and FIFA acquiesced as Costa hadn’t played for Brazil competitively. Scolari was scathing when the news broke, accusing Costa of “turning his back on a dream of millions” but Costa was unrepentant and played for Spain 24 times, scoring 10 goals.
Iñaki Williams – Spain & Ghana
Inaki Williams is a particularly interesting entry into this list for a couple of reasons. First, he has technically represented three national teams. Second, he plays international football for a different country to his brother, Nico Williams. Both Williams brothers represented Spain at youth team level and Iñaki earned a call up to the first team in 2016. He played just one match for Spain and subsequently represented a Basque Country team twice, although the team is not affiliated with FIFA.
Fast forward five years and Williams still hadn’t represented Spain in a competitive match. As this time passed he suggested that he was thinking of representing Ghana, where his parents are from, but worried about taking a place away from a player “who feels Ghana 100%”. Eventually, he accepted the Black Stars’ requests for him to play for Ghana and was part of their squad at the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
Thiago Motta – Brazil & Italy
Thiago Motta played the majority of his career in Spain and France but his international allegiances were split between Brazil and Italy. His first international appearance came for his country of birth as he represented Brazil in the 2003 CONCACAF Gold Cup. He played three times in total in that competition with the matches counting as full internationals even though he was playing with the Brazil Under 23 squad.
Although Motta played for the Brazil Under 23 team again in 2003, he never made the step up to the first team, and by 2010 he was actively seeking to earn a place in Italy’s squad for the World Cup in South Africa. That didn’t quite work out for Motta but shortly after the tournament he was called up by Italy for a friendly match against Germany even though the Italian Football Federation had not received clearance from FIFA. The clearance soon came, with FIFA deciding that his previous appearances for Brazil were not enough to preclude Motta, who had dual Brazilian and Italian citizenship, from playing for the Azzurri.
Wilfried Zaha – England & Ivory Coast
When Wilfried Zaha was called up for England by Roy Hodgson he didn’t know that just a few years later he would be linking up with Hodgson again, this time at Crystal Palace. Zaha also didn’t know that by the time they worked together at Selhurst Park his England career would be over before it really began, and he’d instead be playing international football for the Ivory Coast.
It never really happened for Zaha with England and he officially requested to play for Ivory Coast, the country of his birth, even though Gareth Southgate told him that he still had a future with the Three Lions. The decision was set in stone in January 2017 as Zaha joined the Ivory Coast squad in Gabon for the Africa Cup of Nations.
Alex Bruce – Ireland & Northern Ireland
Alex Bruce was born in Norwich and grew up in Manchester, so would probably have grown up wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps and represent England (Steve never played for the full senior team but represented England Youth and England B). However, it was Northern Ireland who made the first move for Bruce Jr.
Initially, Bruce rejected the overtures of Northern Ireland and played both Under 21 and B Team football for the Republic of Ireland. In 2007, Bruce made his senior debut for the Boys in Green but neither of his two appearances were in competitive matches and so when he went a few years without another call up he decided to return to the ranks of Northern Ireland.
Florent Malouda – France & French Guiana
Most of the stories of footballers playing for more than one national team have some real joy in them. That is true of Florent Malouda’s decision to play for French Guiana despite having 80 caps for France, although it didn’t do brilliant things for his new team. Malouda was a key player under multiple managers during his time in the France squad. Advancing age and a loss of form meant that he fell out of favour with France though and after a five-year absence from the international scene, Malouda was able to play for the country of his birth as they are not a member nation of FIFA.
French Guiana are members of CONCACAF though and are therefore eligible to compete in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Their squad for the 2017 edition of that tournament included Malouda despite his ineligibility to play competitive football for an international team other than France. Malouda was picked for the first match of the tournament, a 0-0 draw with Honduras, but Honduras were given the win due to forfeit because French Guiana fielded their new, ineligible star.
Nacer Chadli – Morocco & Belgium
For most footballers, being named player of the match in your first international match is a dream. Nacer Chadli was delighted with the quality of his performance against Northern Ireland on his Morocco debut but it was not enough to convince him that his long-term international future was with the Atlas Lions.
Just two months after his debut Chadli, who has dual Belgian and Moroccan citizenship, announced that he wished to represent Belgium. Belgium were quick to ensure that they tied Chadli down. He got a taste of international football with the Red Devils when he played in a friendly against Finland and it wasn’t long before he was playing for Belgium at Euro 2012.